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Protesters in Sri Lanka vow not to stop until president, prime minister quits

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COLOMBO, July 10 (Reuters) – Leaders of Sri Lanka’s protest movement said on Sunday they would occupy the residences of the president and prime minister until finally resigning office, the day after the two men agreed to resign and left the country in political uncertainty.

Thousands of protesters stormed the home and office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the prime minister’s official residence on Saturday as demonstrations over their inability to overcome a devastating economic crisis turned into violence.

Rajapaksa will step down on July 13, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said he would resign to allow an interim all-party government to take over, the parliament speaker said. read more

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“The president must resign, the prime minister must resign and the government must leave,” playwright Ruwanthie de Chickera told a news conference at the main protest site in Colombo.

Flanked by other leaders who helped coordinate the anti-government movement, she said the crowd would not leave the official residences of the president and prime minister until then.

Though calm had returned to the streets of Colombo on Sunday, curious Sri Lankans wandered the looted presidential palace all day. Members of the security forces, some with assault rifles, stood outside the compound, but did not stop people from entering.

“I’ve never seen a place like this in my life,” 61-year-old handkerchief seller BM Chandrawathi, accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren, told Reuters as she tried out a plush sofa in a first-floor bedroom.

“They enjoyed super luxury while we suffered. We were misled. I wanted my children and grandchildren to see the luxurious lifestyle they enjoyed.”

Nearby, a group of young men lounged on a four-poster bed, and others took turns on a treadmill that stood in front of large windows overlooking manicured lawns.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

The political chaos could complicate efforts to pull Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis in seven decades, caused by a severe foreign exchange shortage that has hampered imports of essential commodities such as fuel, food and medicines.

The financial collapse that developed after the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the tourism-dependent economy and cut remittances from foreign workers.

It was exacerbated by large and growing government debt, rising oil prices and a seven-month ban on chemical fertilizer imports last year that ravaged agriculture.

Gasoline is strictly rationed and there are long lines at stores that sell cooking gas. The government has asked people to work from home and closed schools to save fuel. The country’s headline inflation of 22 million was 54.6% last month and the central bank has warned it could rise to 70% in the coming months.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any government in power must “work quickly to try to find and implement solutions that bring back the prospect of long-term economic stability and alleviate the discontent of the Sri Lankan people.” tackling it, which is so powerful and palpable.” †

“We would urge the Sri Lankan Parliament to approach this with a commitment to betterment the country, not a political party,” he said at a press conference in Bangkok.

India, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbor that has backed about $3.8 billion during the crisis, said it was keeping a close eye on events.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is in talks with the government for a possible $3 billion bailout, also said it was closely monitoring events.

“We hope for a solution to the current situation that will allow us to resume our dialogue on an IMF-backed program,” the global lender said in a statement. read more

WHERE IS PRESIDENT RAJAPAKSA?

Rajapaksa has not been seen in public since Friday did not immediately say anything about stepping down. Wickremesinghe’s office said he would also quit, although neither he nor Rajapaksa could be contacted.

Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said on Saturday that Rajapaksa’s decision to resign was taken “to ensure a peaceful transfer of power”.

Constitutional experts say that if the president and prime minister resign, the next step would be for the speaker to be appointed as acting president and parliament to vote for a new president within 30 days to complete Rajapaksa’s term in office.

Frustration over the economic crisis boiled over on Saturday as a huge crowd of protesters stormed past armed guards into the colonial-era presidential palace and took it over. Furniture and artifacts were destroyed and some took the opportunity to frolic in the pool.

Then they went to the office of the president and the official residence of the prime minister. Late in the evening, demonstrators set fire to Wickremesinghe’s private home.

Neither Rajapaksa nor Wickremesinghe were in their residences when the buildings were attacked.

About 45 people were taken to a main hospital with injuries on Saturday, a hospital official said, but there were no reports of deaths in the otherwise peaceful takeovers.

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Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe, Devjyot Ghoshal; Written by Sanjeev Miglani and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by William Mallard, Robert Birsel, Edmund Klamann and Alex Richardson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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